Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A bunch of well-known singers get together to record an album of duets. Sound familiar? Okay, then how about this one: Another batch of musicians contribute their renditions of songs by a renowned songwriter or group to a star-studded tribute album. It’s okay to yawn, since both concepts-duet and tribute albums-are now about as fresh as three-day-old congealing spaghetti. Yet such albums have never been more commercially viable, thanks to Frank Sinatra’s Duets and last year’s double-platinum salute to the Eagles, Common Thread. So the remakes of the hits keep on coming. The latest additions are Rhythm, Country & Blues (MCA), on which a gaggle of Nashville hotshots (such as Trisha Yearwood, Travis Tritt, and Lyle Lovett) share a microphone with the likes of Natalie Cole and Al Green, and All Men Are Brothers: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield (Warner Bros.), which finds a veritable Super Bowl of pop and rock stars, including Whitney Houston, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, and Rod Stewart, saluting the silky-voiced R&B singer and songwriter. They are, in other words, the Love Boat and Fantasy Island of pop albums. All Men Are Brothers isn’t the first Mayfield tribute album. That honor goes to last year’s People Get Ready: A Tribute to Curtis Mayfield, a compilation with Huey Lewis & the News, Living Colour’s Vernon Reid, David Sanborn, and others that had the feel of a bar-band set. The major-league lineups of both records show how respected Mayfield is, and he is a remarkable talent. From his days with the Impressions to his patchy ’70s solo career, he wrote a slew of standards with so much soul and heart that they can still raise your arm hairs. Mayfield is a figure worthy of reverence and, in light of the freak stage accident in 1990 that left him a quadriplegic, sympathy. (Some of the proceeds from the sale of All Men Are Brothers go to the Miami Project, which researches spinal injuries.) Unfortunately, that sense of reverence nearly smothers All Men. Sounding desperately afraid of offending Mayfield, most of the artists treat the songs as if they were delicate flowers. Bruce Springsteen’s plodding version of ”Gypsy Woman” and Tevin Campbell’s behind-the-beat take on ”Keep on Pushin”’ are typical-polite, sincere, dull. There are a few standouts: Lenny Kravitz’s version of the obscure ”Billy Jack” is first-rate psychedelic-soul mimicry, and Clapton turns down his guitar and gets into the spirit of the groove of ”You Must Believe Me.” But what does it say about a Mayfield tribute album that one of the most affecting contributions comes from Phil Collins, an artist who isn’t exactly a soul man? It’s his somber, shades-drawn rendition of ”I’ve Been Trying” that best captures the ache at the core of many of Mayfield’s songs. Rhythm, Country & Blues has no problems with reverence, even if its concept isn’t quite as pioneering as the hype preceding its release would indicate. After all, Ray Charles was singing honky-tonk in the ’60s, around the same time those white-soul siblings from Kentucky, the Everly Brothers, were including R&B covers on their albums. There has also long been common ground between country music and the Southern gospel tradition. Rhythm, Country & Blues doesn’t aim to be a music-thesis term paper, though. It just wants to have some loosey-goosey fun with the biracial-duets concept-and succeeds better than might have been imagined. Who would have thought, for instance, that a duet on ”Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” by Vince Gill and the far spunkier Gladys Knight would be so supple? Or that Travis Tritt’s biker-rock gruffness would provide a fine balance to Patti LaBelle’s histrionics on ”When Something Is Wrong With My Baby”? Or that the late Conway Twitty, teamed with Sam and Dave’s Sam Moore on ”Rainy Night in Georgia,” would deliver one of his finest, most hang-dog- elegant performances? And wait until you hear Little Richard and Tanya Tucker rip through ”Somethin’ Else”-a slice of drooling, barrelhouse R&B-like a couple of alley cats in heat. Richard hasn’t sounded this astonishingly alive in years. The clinkers include a rote ”Chain of Fools,” on which the Pointer Sisters effectively bury Clint Black, and a stiff, pristine rendition of ”I Fall to Pieces” by Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood. But for the most part, thanks to the punchy but unobtrusive arrangements of producers Don Was and Tony Brown, Rhythm, Country & Blues is a charmer-the coolest TV variety show on record in years. All Men Are Brothers: C+ Rhythm, Country & Blues: A-
Posted January 17 2015 — 1:49 AM EST
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